Sunday, June 3, 2012

Book Spotlight and Excerpt: Robert C. Fleet's "Salt City"

Kindle File Size: 811 KB
Print Length: 257 pages
Publisher: Red Frog Publishing; 1 edition (April 3, 2012)

Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Red Frog Publishing (March 23, 2012)
ISBN-10: 0984593365
ISBN-13: 978-0984593361
Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.6 inches

Salt City ‐ Synopsis

Syracuse, upstate New York. The “Salt City.” An apartment building on the edge of The Projects – and Anne Malloy dies, thrown out of a sixth floor window, an apparent suicide, while Mark Cornell watches. Mark was there for a purpose, his part‐time gig being to snap incriminating photos for a divorce lawyer who happily takes cases over the phone. Watching the apartment was Mark’s assignment. But this assignment has a problem: Mark learns that “Anne Malloy” had died months before, leaving behind a grieving husband. So who is this woman?

It’s 1976, before cellphones, internet, and all the easy ways of satisfying curiosities, so Mark Cornell’s search for a name to give the victim makes him a foot soldier slogging personally through the facts. And, as those facts pile up, Mark discovers that he really shouldn’t be playing detective, stumbling across the thin line between commerce and crime.

Salt City – Forward from the Book

The “Salt City” is Syracuse, New York. I went to Syracuse University and haven’t been back there since. But I was sitting in Krakow, Poland, trying to marry the love of my life, Alina Szpak, when I met the U.S. consul there, who had also gone to SU. So, teaching my soon‐to‐be wife English, I began writing a “criminalky” using rumored Syracuse scandals that the consul and I remembered. She loved Raymond Chandler ‐ in Polish ‐ and though I’d never read Chandler yet, I tried to fit her descriptions of what she liked. Motivation for the student, as we educators like to say. (One of my degrees is in Education). And, because Cold War politics didn’t respect love as a reason to stay in a country, there was even a plan to translate my story‐for‐her into a serialized Polish crime novel so that I could have a visa while waiting for the official docs allowing me to marry Alina. A great plan – until I created a Russian‐speaking black detective and people thought I was being politically sarcastic and…

Flash forward a bunch of years… Three published novels and six produced screenplays later. (Wish I was rich from that, but life is sarcastic.) Certain characters, certain moral outlooks, stay with you. After Salt City’s Mark Cornell, I created Heart of Stone’s Sam Williams. Then, sitting in a temp job in L.A., I brought Sam and Mark together in The Quiet Child, a story still unwritten, only outlined. Ten years later I found Sam lamenting Mark’s disappearance and wrote Happy New Year, adapted into a feature‐that‐never‐happened
(typical Hollywood story). Six months later I was sitting in a Carl’s Jr., saw a certain waitress delivering my fast food entree, and realized what happened to Mark and Sam in Broken Doll (also never written, but understood). They stay with you. There is a certain worldview that likes to – or needs to – understand the Why of what people do. Mark and Sam and the people they meet, they’re not me, but they are people I saw, observed, sometimes interacted with. Good people doing bad things, bad people with decent motives, a guy you like but realize he can’t tell the truth from one person to the next, even when it’s against his own interests. Sometimes you even understand the Why, but realize that it’s an explanation, not an excuse. Where is that damn Do‐Not‐Cross line?! They stay with you. Rereading Heart of Stone, Salt City and Happy New Year, like my favorite books, I still liked them. They still “mean” something in the current world. “The more things change, the more they stay the same” as the French say. Surprise to me: sad in the overview, pleasant in the “Well, did I have foresight!” ego‐world. But each one stands on its own: Salt City as the first‐born of them all, Heart of Stone already out there, and Happy New Year soon a‐comin’. Whether the whole family will ever be born, well, we’ll see.

Salt City Excerpt

two-ton football truck drivers, just petty mean. Like that teacher
I had in 5th grade, the one who couldn’t let a kid go home
without at least ten math problems to do and twenty words
to spell. Idiot work. I felt that kind of mean that likes to see
others waste their time like I am. So I didn’t answer right away
when the blueshirt asked me what I was doing parked there in
the dead of night.
“All right, let’s see the license,” he said after his fifteen
second politeness limit had expired.
This one I knew. Too quick to the pocket and he’d have
me out the door and into a body-lock breathing tears: self-defense,
“It could have been a gun.” Too slow and it was failure
to obey an officer’s commands. Either way, I’d asked for it.
Now, feeling mean, I’d have to eat it. Or lose the twenty-five
waiting for me downtown. I like to eat. I went for the money.

 “Officer, I’m reaching for my license now,” I said, doing
just that. “I’m waiting here for my brother-in-law who said to
pick him up around one o’clock from his girl’s house, only he
doesn’t want me to ring and so I’m. . .” I rattled on, getting
worse and worse.
The problem with lying is that you’ve got to stick to the
story. With a good lie, it’s no problem. With my lie I’d either
better have a brother-in-law show up soon or get a move on
and say good-bye to the twenty-five. I felt mean.
Of course, sometimes things work out a third way.
It didn’t matter who I said was coming once she flew out the
window. And once she struck the ground, I couldn’t even
remember what I’d said.
But sometimes at night I still remember how long it
took Anne Malloy to fall those six stories.

Anne Malloy had looked pretty good in the photograph the boss
had shown me: tall, thirty and Irish. Perfect little housewife
with a touch of life. That was all I knew. The boss - small, forty
and bored - told me to sit outside 210 Salinas Street, where
I would probably find her bronze Maverick conveniently and
foolishly parked, wait there till she came out of the apartment
building, take a picture if I could, and tail her discreetly until
my shift was up, even if it just meant staring at her house while
she slept through the rest of the night. A divorce case. I didn’t
care. I’m paid twenty-five dollars for eight hours, 10 p.m. to 6
a.m., to follow someone and report what they do.
That’s all.
That’s all I have to do.
That’s all I have to know.

That’s all that’s necessary to wrap up a marriage and
deliver it to the divorce courts in New York State this Year of
Our Lord, Anno Domini, AD 1977.
I had checked the odometer mileage as I got in my car,
I remembered that: at seven cents a mile and thirty cents per
half hour of idling time the expenses add up, and I wanted Bill
Baeren, alias the boss, to foot the bill whenever and wherever
I could put it to him. Then I started out, wondering, but not
too much.
What half-hearted speculation I did engage in, in fact,
concerned the locale: Salinas Street. Salinas could be “fun,”
depending on where in the City of Syracuse I found Number
210. North was white, south was black and 210 was smack in
the middle of everyman’s land. Which was why the police were
quick to question. It was a good area for a little inter-racial
Only it wasn’t a robbery we were watching.
No, we were watching a window six floors up smash open
from the impact of a human body. Then that body, a woman’s
body, dropped down.
I suppose that we expected, the cop and I, to see the
body arc through the darkness - hover, perhaps, suspended for
a moment in space and time like a swan dive - then gracefully
knife through the air into a pool of night. It didn’t. When Anne
Malloy left solid ground behind her she dropped straight and
sprawling. There was no grace to her fall, only time. The slow
time that allowed her to let out one sound. And then there was
a guard-rail, followed by the ground.
I felt a terrible emotion swell up behind my eyes. I couldn’t
move. Couldn’t. And for a moment the fear that Anne Malloy
must have felt took hold of me as I thought of how I would
never move. Deep inside something pushed - willed - movement,
and I let out a cry to join Anne Malloy’s. I pushed against
the car door with all my weight, knocking the policeman back
as I forced myself out of the car. I ran towards the body. When
I got to her, I turned to the nearest bush and vomited. Five
seconds later, the policeman joined me at the bush.

Police detective Richard Anderson was young, black
and lieutenant. He had the kind of eyes I thought they only
gave to doctors, the kind that see the symptoms but miss the
human bearing them. Only the sweat stains on his clothes betrayed
his nerves. It was a cold night.
By the time Anderson arrived I was sitting in my car,
idling the engine to keep warm. But the cold was inside me
and it didn’t want to stop. I thought I’d like to go home and
sleep, the wave of adrenaline-drop drowsiness overcoming me
unaffected by a pounding heartbeat and racing, frightened
emotions. If I could sleep . . .
Instead, I sat in my car waiting for the questions to start.
I watched the police story outside 210 Salinas Street with my
windows rolled up, making a silent movie out of the scene:
mouths opened and closed, puffs of frosty air hovered in
front of every face, policemen and medical examiners walked
quickly and businesslike in and out of the apartment building.

A black man in maintenance man overalls emerged from the
basement of the apartment building, led by two blueshirts.
He wore bedroom slippers, and after a moment of observing his
possessive gestures and the blueshirts’ administrative responses,
I realized that he must be the building superintendent.
The silent movie began its second reel: Anderson stood
in the middle of it all, practically straddling the body, checking
off with a BIC pen something on the clipboard he carried like
an extension of his left arm, then using the pen like a baton to
waive directions with his right.
My bush became popular with many of the new arrivals.
I thought of turning up the volume, thought better
of it, and settled back into a comfortable chill, watching it all
through half-closed eyes.
I woke up when he opened the door.

me asleep, then resentful. I looked at him standing there, bending
at the waist to poke his head through my passenger-side door.
Sweat was beaded on his forehead like an August afternoon.
It was only Monday morning.
Two a.m.
In October.
“Mister? . . .”
“Cornell. Mark Cornell.”
“Mr. Cornell. I want to thank you, Mr. Cornell. Officer
Marron says you helped with the body and -”
“I didn’t help,” I said abruptly, more upset than I thought
I was. “I put my coat over her, that’s all. I’m cold.”
“It’s over there if you want it.” It was still across her body.
“I’d rather be cold.”

Anderson settled into the seat beside me, keeping his
eyes on the activity surrounding the body. The police photographers
were finished and the ambulance crew was picking up
the pieces for the morgue. Why did they send for an ambulance?,
I wondered. Probably ’cause Marron was an optimist.
“You saw the incident?” Anderson asked, his tone indicating
it was time for business and that there was really no
question in what he had just said.
“Yes” I answered appropriately.
“Let me read this statement,” Anderson began, very
mechanically. What followed was Officer Marron’s account of
the fall, essentially the same as mine but with a different imagination
filling in the adjectives. Marron had glossed over our
little run-in beforehand, either forgetting it or to pay me back
for taking care of the body while he’d phoned in. Either way,
it didn’t matter to Anne Malloy: she was dead whether or not
the witnesses to her fall were best buddies or blood enemies.
I kept seeing her fall.
I nodded “yes” when Anderson asked if I would corroborate
the statement, then I signed the handwritten document in
a space big enough for three signatures - if each was the size of
a pinhead. I kept seeing her fall.
“That’s fine, Mr. Cornell. Thank you very much.”
Lieutenant Anderson took the pen from my hand like
a teacher gently prying a crayon from a first grader. I guess he
was used to dealing with death-stunned witnesses. I was pretty
much of a rookie in the field. Anderson’s voice matched his

 “Of course you’ll have to come down to the station
tomorrow to make an official statement, but I’ll have this one
typed and ready and all you’ll have to do is drop by my desk
and sign it. OK?” As before, Anderson’s tone made it clear he
was not asking.
“Oh. One last question. You live around here?”
Through my own haze of thoughts about the lady falling,
I understood the question enough to stop myself from answering
right way. Easy question - should have been an easy answer
- but if I told him the truth we would have to start all over
I couldn’t start all over again. I had to get away from
here. I kept seeing her fall.
“No, Lieutenant. I don’t live around here. I was waiting
for my brother-in-law.”
“Fine ... Fine.” Anderson paused, looking at the ambulance
pull away. He looked cold. He looked like he didn’t
want to leave my car. I looked down Salinas Street and couldn’t
see a light on that wasn’t a streetlight. Or a car. I looked over
at Anderson’s clipboard. The top page was a grocery checklist,
typewritten, ending with a woman’s handwriting:
“and You.”

I’m lucky, I suppose: give me a bed from seven in the
morning till one in the p.m. and I can go the next eighteen
hours without a break. Not bad unless you’ve got to work the
9-to-5s. I don’t, so I guess I’m pretty lucky. Now I was even
more lucky: it was only 4 a.m., Bill Baeren wouldn’t be expecting
me to call-in till the afternoon, so I could get in three hours
off the front.
Try sleeping after a murder.
Nope. Good ol’ Syracuse closes down at one.
At this hour only Feelin’ Husky (or was it Loretta Livin’?)
was wailing the virtues of lost virginity and strong daddies.
... Eat?
No. There are some feelings you have to be hungry for.
And clean. The ritual kind. Despite the fact that my apartment
building actually has a decent supply of hot water, I turned on
the cold, ran it over my hands and waited till my fingers felt
numb. Then I wiped my hands across my face, shoveling handfuls
of liquid ice into my eyes, and rinsed my mouth with the
cold clean chemical water. Later, I sat in the only chair I owned,
a big comfortable armchair with a high back and thick, padded
arms, a chair that I’d found abandoned on the sidewalk.
I wasn’t cold now, not even with the window open.

office. I dialed his private number, the one without the answering
machine: I thought Bill himself would like to console
me. His phone only rang once. Another busy Monday.
“Yeah, Mark?”
I waited. Damn, I wanted some consolation.
“You are, without a doubt, one hell of a swell fella,”
I said after an indecent pause.
“Yeah, I can see that. I’m giving you twenty-five dollars
a night to compliment me. Remind me of that when I’m as slow
with your paycheck as you are with a report.”
Something was missing. Maybe not grief, I didn’t
expect that, but divorce detectives don’t have their clients’
wives murdered then go on with the business day without
any reaction.

“Did you read the morning papers, Bill?”
“Yeah, why?”
“For Christsake, Bill, Syracuse doesn’t have that many
murders! Didn’t you see it?”
“See wha-”
“She’s dead, Bill!” said the high voice. My voice. I stopped.
“Anne Malloy is dead, Bill,” I began again, slowly.
Bill Baeren said nothing, so I continued: “I saw her
die. Someone threw her out the window of the apartment you
sent me to watch. It was a long fall, Bill. Read your paper, it’ll
be there.”
I expected a pause, a rush of “Oh, God!” inhaled breath,
then an apology from Bill. Instead I got a the kind of subtexted
whine to his voice that says “You’re probably bullshitting my
time, but just in case -”
“I read the paper, Mark. There’s no mention of Anne
Malloy.” I could hear the nervous rustle of the thin pages.
“Here, page two, they write about a window accident, possible
suicide, but no names, no addresses.”
“The police are probably holding off on the name till
they tell the husband,”
I answered. I was beginning to feel
something sharp in my stomach. I hoped it was hunger.
“Nope. Says here ‘. . . no identification. Police are searching
for clues to identity . . .’ et cetera, et cetera.”
Baeren paused. I could hear the pages rustle again, only
it was a stall this time, not a search. He began making a strange
sound that I tried hard not to recognize.

 “You didn’t tell them anything?” he said at last.
“I corroborated a policeman’s statement. We watched
her fall.”
“And that’s all?”
There was a sigh and a ceasing of the strange sound.
My stomach still felt odd.
“Now listen, Mark, listen good,” Baeren suddenly rushed,
“I don’t know if you know it, but for some reason we got lucky
on this one.”
I began to realize that it wasn’t hunger I felt. Baeren’s
following speech only confirmed my diagnosis.
“The police don’t - I repeat don’t - like private operators.
Don’t with a capital D. I guess they figure you were just a
passerby. That’s good. We’ll just let them run their investigation
without complications, and you can be free of -”
“I’ve got to go back this afternoon to sign an official
When Bill Baeren is frustrated he sucks in his left cheek
and chews it. It hurts me to watch. Right then it was hurting me
to hear.
“You already made a statement?”
“A cop saw me parked outside and was asking me questions
when she went out the window. I said I was waiting for
my brother-in-law.”
“And this ‘official’ statement today: is it supposed to be
a new statement?”
“Only if I want. Lieutenant Anderson strongly implied
that he’d prefer the statements to stay the same.”
“How strongly?”
“It’ll be typed and waiting.”
Baeren stopped chewing his cheek.
“But they don’t even know who she is,” I said. “I’ve got
to tell them.”
The chewing started again.
There wasn’t much to do for the next minute but wait
as Baeren continued to masticate his mouth. I stood up and
shambled over to the bookcase; after seven hours in a chair all
I could do was shamble. I selected the three books I needed for
class that day. One was long and interesting, two were small and
deadly. I’d go to the police after Hegel. There was some justice
in that. Baeren stopped chewing his cheek:
“Mark, I can’t take the publicity. My business doesn’t
like publicity. The police don’t like my business.” Bill was being
very sincere now, and getting to the heart of his concern -
But I thought about it.
I was still thinking about it when Philosophy 501,
Hegel and His Times, ended. It was the kind of boring class
where thinking about anything but the subject at hand was
subliminally encouraged by every word droned.
For me it didn’t matter what would happen with “the
business” - I’m paid twenty-five dollars a night to follow his SALT
bands errant or wives astray and it keeps my afternoons open for
the graduate program at Syracuse University. But I had a scholarship,
so all I was risking was the loss of a little extra money and
a schedule that fit in with my sleep patterns.
Not so for William H. Baeren, Esquire: he was not a
thirty-one year-old “professional” student but an unimaginative
little lawyer who’d found a way to pull in forty thousand (net)
a year without taxing his minimal legal talents. He also owed
me three weeks’ back pay, a situation guaranteed to deteriorate
upon the occurrence of any sudden business reversals.
And so it was with a less-than-decisive step that I entered
Precinct Headquarters, determined to do my duty.

Salt City - About the Author

Robert Fleet took a youth in Texas, Missouri & New York, university education in Syracuse, Amsterdam & London, and then spent the first years of his career as actor-writer with the Chinese “Zignal Theater Ensemble” at La Mama E.T.C. A summer in Poland at Jerzy Grotowski's Teatr Laboratorium lengthened into extended stay — and writing a Polish-serialized crime novel, Salt City, in order to obtain a visa to remain in the then-Communist country to marry the woman he saw on his first day there: his artistic collaborator-wife ever since, Alina Szpak. In America, Robert's NYC theater activities included directing children's theater, Yiddish historical dramas, Irish repertory, full-fledged spectacles, and his own works.

Teamed with Alina, Robert turned to film and video, directing-acting in the 1980 drama “Unveiling,” about life in Manhattan’s SoHo society. Script doctoring a wilderness documentary in California led to production of his own feature script, 1984’s “Brothers of the Wilderness.” In 1984-86, Robert adapted his magic realism novel, White Horse, Dark Dragon (Putnam) into the screen­play for the feature film “White Dragon (aka "Legend of the White Horse" aka “Bialy Smok”).        
Forays into journalism have been published in the Los Angeles Times, Commonweal, and other venues. Robert has translated/adapted plays from the Chinese, Polish, Russian and French originals — often in collaboration. His 1994 novel, Last Mountain (Putnam) was nominated for an American Library Association award. In 1999, Robert directed the feature version of “Last Mountain,” co-adapting the screenplay with his son, Stephan Szpak-Fleet. Information on the book and movie @

After the L.A. Riots, Robert collaborated with Soon-Tek Oh and the Korean-American “Society of Heritage Performers,” adapting “Contemporary Korean Short Stories” for NPR,  writing “Behind The Walls” (“that pointed nowhere familiar from Orwell, Koestler, Pinter, Dorfman…a Godot-like romp” BackStage), and “Don Juan, a tragi-comedy of errors” (“reminiscent of CyranoL.A. Weekly).  He co-directed “Have You Heard,” one of only three American productions invited to the Theater of Nations Festival ’97. 

Screenwriting recently, Robert wrote the shorts “A Good War,” Texas Waltz,” “The Wrong Path,” “Butterfly,” “The First Person” and “Zaufanie (Trust”) – the last two appearing at the Cannes Film Festival. His feature-length docudrama “To Die For Words: the Last Days of Ken Saro-Wiwa” is optioned, with acclaimed director Charles Burnett (“To Sleep with Anger”) committed to direct. In the past few years, two of Robert’s feature screenplays were produced independently: “My Best Friend’s Deception,” a black comedy/mystery (Cinegraphe Pictures, Canada) — and “Player,” a drama, directed by Alina Szpak (Legend 44 Productions – trailer at

Acting, recently: In addition to playing the lead in “Player,” Robert Fleet is a familiar face on the festival circuit, appearing in over three dozen shorts. On stage, Robert appeared in award-winning Los Angeles productions of  “Cabaret,” “LULU, a Play with Music” and in Stephan Szpak-Fleet’s Pilate” at the L.A. Theatre Center. He is featured in Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” playing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Dame Judi Dench.

A ridiculously undertrained carpenter, Robert has recently renovated his house under the despotic instructions of his producer/director wife, with no assistance from his son. They are owned by several pets.

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